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the origins and early history of the steamer albatross, 1880 - 1887
by Dean C. Allard

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The Albatross began her third year of operation in January 1885 when she
sailed from the Washington Navy Yard for a winter cruise in the Caribbean
Sea. As was typical, Baird’s letter of instruction to Tanner directed that he combine practical with scientific work(13). Initially the ship collected specimens and hydrographic data off Cuba, Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, and the U.S. Gulf coast. Then the ship proceeded to an International Exposition in New Orleans, La., where many visitors came on board.

picture of ships chart room
Figure 15. - The chart room

Additionally, in another effort by the Fish Commission to expand American fisheries, the Albatross surveyed known fishing grounds and located a productive, new red snapper bank near Cape San Blas on the west coast of Florida (Tanner, 1887:3-26; USFC, 1887:xxvi-xxviii; Schroeder, 1922:166-167).

Following a now-familiar pattern, the Albatross deployed for the summer of 1885 in northern waters, using Woods Hole as her base. Initially the ship cruised in the Grand Banks region collecting hydrographic data for a new contour map of those highly productive fishing banks. Joseph W. Collins, the Commission’s commercial fishing expert, personally directed this work. Later, the vessel operated in deep oceanic waters off the Continental Shelf.

Fish Commission spokesmen continued to state that the Albatross was searching for the tilefish, but this was not Baird’s only motivation. During one of her cruises out of Woods Hole, the ship logged 11 deep-water stations with an average depth of 1,923 fathoms, yielding numerous bottom specimens. As was typical in Albatross operations during this period, plankton also was collected by surface nets, continual hydrographic observations were made, and readings were obtained of the ocean’s specific gravity, salinity, and temperature. In addition to the scientists named previously, the Fish Commission’s investigators during the summer of 1885 included Leslie A. Lee, a naturalist from Bowdoin College, and William Libbey, Jr., a Princeton physical oceanographer (Tanner, 1887: 27–62; NCAB, 1931:140–141; Deck Log(14).

On her return to Washington, D.C., in October 1885, the Albatross undertook a limited investigation of the Gulf Stream region off the Delaware and Chesapeake Capes and Cape Hatteras(15). Aside from its scientific purpose, this activity probably was associated with Baird’s interest in the spring and fall migrations of coastal pelagic species. Nevertheless, a later Congressional investigation of the Fish Commission alleged that Spencer Baird never “thoroughly planned” an inquiry into this subject (U.S. Congress, 1891:70–71).

The ship’s 1886 winter cruise was funded jointly by the Navy and the Fish Commission. The Albatross cruised mainly in the Bahamas area to collect hydrographic data. Baird also directed the ship’s crew to determine if the Bahamas were the winter home for the pelagic fish species that appeared each spring off the Mid-Atlantic coast, but no evidence to support that theory was found. However, useful data were collected for the Commission on the sponge fisheries off Nassau. Productive hauls of biological specimens also were taken from the Straits of Florida and in the Gulf Stream south of Cape Hatteras (Tanner, 1888:605–606; USFC, 1892:x–xi).

Publication of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NOAA Central Library.

Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:24 AM

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